Clive James on teaching poetry.

During last Friday’s edition of A Point of View, (BBC Radio 4) Clive James, who was talking about what the new Poet Laureate  Carol Ann Duffy, means to us,  at one point turned his thoughts to the  subject of teaching poetry and how it should and should not be done. He acknowledged that there was a time he thought that poetry couldn’t – indeed, shouldn’t – be taught in schools.

That was until he recollected that in his youth he and his contemporaries “were made to memorise a poem or we couldn’t go home.” He readily conceded that though he personally benefitted from it,  this was far from being an ideal way of teaching or being taught.

…the best way, surely, is for the teachers to read out one of the phrases that drew them into a particular poem in the first place. Every good poem has at least one of them, the phrase that makes your mind stand on end.

I heard one of these yesterday, on a marvellous website called Poetry Archive, a creation for which Andrew Motion was partly responsible. On Poetry Archive you can hear the famous poets read out what they wrote. One of the poets is Richard Wilbur, the American poet who helped, fifty years ago, to do for me what Fanthorpe did for Duffy – provide an example. The Wilbur phrase that caught me this time, and took me back to when I was first under his spell, came from a little poem about mayflies. He visualises millions of them rising and sinking in the light, and he calls them “the tiny pistons of a bright machine”.

I was knocked out, and I couldn’t imagine anyone hearing that and not wanting to know more about Richard Wilbur. When they look him up, they will find that he was a soldier throughout the last campaigns of WWII from Cassino onwards, but when he came back from the slaughterhouse he hardly ever wrote about it. He preferred to write about mayflies.

For anyone who has read thus far, and has remained sufficiently engaged, here is Mayflies by Richard Wilbur read by the poet onThe Poetry Archive.

My own realization that poetic language did not have to be high-flown or unlike the language I spoke in everyday life came not from reading the school approved texts of poets by poets whose experience I could not, for the most part, fathom, so remote were they from my own, but from my first hearing, and then committing to memory these lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

It has taken me years to figure out what the whole poem might be about, but throughout those years I have been convinced that any poem in which what the fog does – or on occasion appears to do –  is described in such a way had to have more gems to yield.


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